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Working paper

The Concept Of ‘Friendship’ In Late 18th – Early 19th Century Russia: Social Cohesion Reconsidered

The paper examines social differences within the concept of ‘friendship’ in late 18th – early 19th century Russia in order to ‘reassemble’ friendship as a social phenomenon in this period. Ubiquitously, the voluminous correspondence of the Russian aristocracy is interpreted as “friendly” disregarding any social dimension and ignoring the social station of the correspondents. The 18th century was a critical period in Russia being an age of radical modernization. New social and cultural models were appropriated and, as a result of westernization, the Latin tradition was assimilated too. In early modern Europe, the concept of ‘friendship’ was applied to allegedly equal relationships, as the words cliens, patronus, clientela were not in use any more, but clients were described as amici, or friends by their patrons. The paper analyzes the correspondence of several Russian aristocrats with their clients – social inferiors. The grandees refer to these relations as ‘friendly’ and call them friendship or amitié (bien sincere or parfait) emphasizing their value for them. From the letters of their correspondents, it comes to light that the social inferiors tended to be wary and not to use these notions assessing their relationships, thus remaining in the conceptual framework of the patron-client relationships. Under the impact of the ‘emotional turn’ of early sentimentalism, the concept of friendship, like that of social cohesion, was used by the grandees as a means to reinterpret the relationships of dominance in the patron-client relations as voluntary and predicated on selfless devotion whereas their clients preferred to avoid sensitivity still resorting to more traditional and apprehensible flattery and obsequiousness.